Thursday, July 31, 2008


Remember the wind-up toys you used to get as a kid? They'd be lifeless and you'd give the key a turn and it'd go gangbusters for awhile and gradually slow down until it ground to a halt. You'd wind it up and the process would start all over again.

I often feel like a wind-up toy when it comes to my energy levels. I'm fine for a certain stretch of time (usually about 5 or so hours) then I start to drag and then crash. When the crash comes, I will eventually get a second wind. Perhaps there's some giant cosmic hand in another reality putting a key in me and winding me back up again. I wish it would have installed a longer lasting spring so I'd get through more hours before I run down. At the very least, it could pay attention and re-wind more often.

Now that I'm at home all the time, I can go lie down for a bit when the crash comes. It's an unadulterated luxury being able to lie on your own bed when you're tired in the middle of the afternoon. While I lie there with my eyes closed, I try not to think about anything. In fact, I'd be perfectly happy at these times to just fall asleep and take a nap. Most of the time, I can't fall asleep and my mind drifts a bit in a place between being fully awake and asleep.

Back during my few years in Japan, I used to have a strange sense of connecting to home during these "lie downs". It wasn't that feeling people sometimes have in sleep where you wake up and are surprised to be in your current locale. It was more of a feeling of an energy filament tethering me to the energies of my family and familiar things back home. Sometimes it felt as if I could "sense" the other side of the planet where I grew up as I lay there, a tiny spec on the other side. As some time went by, the feeling of this connection disappeared.

Starting about 10 or so years ago, I started to have a very different experience when I closed my eyes during one of these resting sessions. It started after I tried some meditation exercises (and failed at them) and has been recurring ever since. During one of my meditations, I saw faces vividly. The faces were of people I had never seen before. I also once saw an exceptionally clear stone totem figure which resembled the shape (though not the size and design) of an Olmec head. I remembered well enough at the time to draw a picture of it, though I believe I threw it away later on for unknown reasons. Though I haven't done these exercises for a very long time nor have I actively meditated, I've found that I often see a variety of faces when I'm lying in bed with my mind set adrift.

These faces have different ages, expressions, ethnicities, and looks. They aren't animated in any way and are similar to snapshots, though they don't feel as lifeless as a photo. I don't know where they come from, though I have my theories. When I see them, I don't try to think too hard about them as I've found attempting to "seize" the image and burn it into memory tends to make it slip away. If you've ever seen a slide-show which is supposed to show a subliminal message by slipping in an extremely brief glimpse of something, it's a bit like that. Often, if I'm not trying too hard to think about or remember the faces I see, there will be a succession of several of them in a session. Generally, by the third one, I'm focusing too much on what I'm seeing and they stop.

I've seen a lot of faces and pictures in my life and it's possible that the review that happens when I'm adrift between consciousness and unconsciousness could just as easily be explained as my mind tiptoeing through the file cabinets of random memories to occupy itself. I wouldn't say that's impossible though I would see it as a curious coincidence that this only happens in this particular situation and that the faces don't appear in any sort of context or with any background.

The faces always appear as if being illuminated slowly from out of darkness and then fading back into it. I'd think that sensory memories would hold truer to their original context than that as most sensory memories are interconnected in a cluster of sensory information. This is why a distinctive smell makes you remember a place or feeling associated with it rather than it just being a familiar smell in many cases. It makes no sense that images would be stripped of their backgrounds in such a fashion if it is mere memory of pictures I saw in books or magazines as a child which are flashing back to me.

I don't know for sure what it is, but it neither troubles nor comforts me that it happens. I never think about it before I lie down for a rest. In fact, I often forget that it sometimes happens until it has actually occurred. I'm guessing that even going so far as to write about it may make the notion close enough to the front of my mind that it will likely stop happening for quite some time, but, I guess it's too late to worry about that now. ;-)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mamador Bean Cakes

Two gifts from two different students (for my CH) in one day. A box of Mamador bean cakes from Takashimaya in Shinjuku and some macademia nuts from Saipan.

Sometimes I wonder how long I'd have to live in Japan to sample every white bean cake on the market. No matter how many we try, more keep popping up. And, we've tried a lot. My husband was given a new variety today as a gift from a student for no particular reason. Japanese people are like that.

When I say "new", I mean "new to us" only. Apparently the company that makes these has been in business since 1946. It's easy to miss any particular Japanese sweet when you're shopping. Department stores have miles and miles of them available and it'd be impossible to buy or try them all. That means that some real gems can slip under your radar and these cakes are pretty, shiny diamonds amongst white bean cakes. In fact, they're my husband's new favorite among the types you can pick up pre-boxed (and locally).

The picture of the inside of these cakes makes them look like like they're full of some sort of yellow or fruit jelly, but they are full of super moist white beans surrounded by a moist cake-like shell. Most bean cakes are relatively dry and their fillings can be downright powdery at times. These are full of butter and milk and the flavor is reminiscent of vanilla cake.

It strikes me that these would make an excellent souvenir to take back home as it's a Japanese sweet which I'm sure even squeamish eaters would enjoy. They're just a little hard to find though unless you happen to live in the right location.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

First Impressions

First impressions are tricky things. They are often regarded as memories being written on the blank canvas of a scrap of your mind. What they really are is reality having a tete a tete with your expectations. Depending on how you were oriented toward something before your first encounter, your first impression will be more or less favorable.

When I first arrived in Japan in 1988, my image of Japan was that it was populated by quiet, polite, efficient people who lived in clean technologically-impressive surroundings. My expectations, particularly in light of the fact that the port of entry was Narita airport, were unrealistically high. This was no doubt a reflection of the overall impression of Japan in the U.S. in the 80's as an economic machine of awesome technological prowess fueled by super hard-working, monumentally clever people who were kicking our asses in world markets. I will offer a few words to those who were as naive as me at that time. Few countries are as bad as your negative impressions or as good as your positive ones. Barring areas with serious problems, every place has good and bad points.

As someone who teaches from her home, first impressions are frequently on my mind both in terms of how I'm viewed and how my apartment is regarded. Do the students think my place looks "dirty" (as the Japanese are often prone to believing about anything which shows wear and tear or its age is "dirty"? Am I what they expected? Was the lesson content as expected?

Through time, I've come to realize that how my place and I am perceived is based not on any objective information, but rather on the students' expectations and prior experiences. Those who have never met a foreigner or have limited experiences with them approach me differently than those who have traveled or lived abroad. When people have most of their experiences with foreign faces through a television screen, they form unrealistic expectations of appearance and character. They are more likely to expect you to be an entertainer and more attractive than average because their notion of "average" is so skewed. Similarly, those who have lived in old rundown places or have a greater variety of experiences with different apartments tend to see my place differently. Mind you, I've never quizzed people about their impressions of my apartment, but random (socially appropriate) comments do get made from time to time which clue me in.

The students aren't the only ones who have expectations based on prior experiences. Over the weekend, a new student came to may apartment, and before he came, I was forming my expectations of him based on the vague information I had been given about his age, job and study history. I have far fewer male students than female ones and I'm wary of men as students in general for a variety of reasons. I'm slightly nervous about them coming into the house when I'm alone, but I realize this is relatively irrational considering that they are sent by an agency so someone knows that they are coming here and when. Those intent on harming others generally don't leave such clear tracks to allow themselves to be traced. I'm not ashamed to admit that I have to spend some time talking myself down from what are no doubt mostly irrational and paranoid concerns. That being said, I did have an interview with a really creepy man at one point who was sent over by the agency so it's not unheard of that strange men make their way into the system. Fortunately, the new weekend student was a very nice, professional person who had lived in the U.S. for several years. He was expressive and friendly and spoke English at quite a high level.

First impressions are important, but I believe it's important not to fuss too much before making one. While we can do everything we can to make the best possible first impression, the other side of the equation is as or more important than how we actually present ourselves, and there's nothing we can do to control the context in which other people receive us.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

At least one other person "gets it"

I've been told that Japan is "wasted on me" by people who have only ever admired it from afar or as tourists. This comment is elicited because of the following facts about my life in Japan:
  • I'm not mad about Japanese food. I enjoy some of it, dislike some of it, and am relatively indifferent to most of it. I'm the same way about the types of food in the U.S., so it's nothing personally directed toward Japan. For example, I also dislike steak and hamburgers.
  • I'm not the least bit interested in anime, manga, cosplaying, or any of the other otaku-related pursuits.
  • I don't have a burning passion to visit every temple and gate in every major tourist area.
  • I don't care about onsen.
  • I have insufficient interest in traditional arts (flower arranging, tea ceremony, etc.) to get involved in them.
  • I am female and not a lesbian and therefore don't drool and act like a sex-starved post-pubescent dog at the sight of young Japanese women.
Given all this, people think I'm getting nothing uniquely Japanese out of Japan. The problem is that I can't possibly make them understand what I'm getting because they are too obsessed with what they're getting (or would be getting) from Japan to see anything else. Well, I also don't care enough to try and make them understand, but I do care enough to write about someone who does understand (aside from my husband and myself).

People believe that all of the value in living in a foreign culture is to be extracted from the most superficial and obvious aspects. I believe there is also value in understanding how the culture develops and where and why people have divergent thinking. Today, I had a student tell me something in her lesson to the effect of 'sometimes I think about the psychology of why Western and Japanese people think so differently.' She told me she found it fascinating and enjoyed pondering it. Yes, she gets it.

Most people look at cultural differences as a means to an end. That is, they want to either understand so that they can do business effectively or fit into the culture when they live in it. I have nothing so pragmatic at the core of my curiosity. I want to know why this lump of human clay took this shape and that lump formed in another place took another shape. I think by knowing what formed the basic personality structure of a person, I can inhabit their (mental) reality a little better. It builds empathy, compassion, and understanding for the emotional language people speak.

As an example, I can say that I have no interest in the fact that people bow instead of shake hands or in how low they bow. I am interested in why they're bowing and why they bow differently to different people and why they conform to this cultural expectation. And when I say "why", I don't mean that I want a pat reason like they are not comfortable with physical contact. I want to know what about their culture has made them uncomfortable enough with physical contact to choose bowing and why they don't like to hug each other when making contact with other people in acts of affection is one of the greatest visceral joys of human existence. What pushed this out of them?

Of course, there's no easy answer because not everyone is the same, even in a relatively homogeneous culture. The answers are complex and scattered all over the place in the language, the history, and the behavioral norms. It's a huge puzzle that you could work on for a lifetime and never find all the pieces but I think it's worthwhile and far more interesting than visiting maid cafes or having my picture taken in front of umpteen temples. That's just me though. And now another person "gets it", and that makes me happy.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Taking the Next Step

It's that time of year in Tokyo again. When it's been hot for a month or so and it rarely gets lower than the mid 70's (mid 20's if you're talking Celsius) at night and the water never cools down. By late July, even the "cold" water from the tap is running warm. In fact, when I soak salad greens in the spinner, the water heats them up so much that I either have to throw ice in there or pre-wash and bag them to re-cool my now somewhat wilted greens in the refrigerator.

Taking showers becomes especially difficult around this point in summer. Even at the lowest heat setting, the water comes out incredibly hot, but cold water is not warm enough in which to comfortably shower though, honestly, in past years both my CH and I have opted for the feeling of taking a frigid camp shower over cooking ourselves. Getting overheated in a hot shower then stepping out into a hot room is not only bad for the spirit, but also the body.

This year, we're choosing a new path because of environmental concerns. I always do my best to reduce energy consumption to save money. I'm the person who turns off a light every time she leaves a room and suffers the heat sometimes to the point of feeling heat exhausted in order to "save the planet". Mind you, I doubt I'm contributing much as I'm sure for every person like me, there are hundreds who don't give a toss and figure that mankind will either soil its nest to the point of extinction or science will save us. However, I think it's important to live your life as much as possible thinking that the world would be better off if everyone did what you did rather than focusing on the fact that everyone isn't going to do what you do. Otherwise, you're just talking yourself into living by your convenience rather than your ethics.

The next step lately in trying to be more environmentally conscious has been to reduce shower water use and heating time by turning off the shower while I soap up or shampoo and to turn it on for rinsing. It's a good method, though feels quite troublesome at first. After you get used to it though, it doesn't feel like much of a sacrifice. If you're opting for this method to save energy (and it will reduce your gas or electricity bill and save you money if nothing else), I recommend filling a basin of water in the shower for re-wetting your soap or washcloth so you don't have to turn the water back on while you lather up. In fact, I recommend you don't use a washcloth but invest in a good quality synthetic mesh bath puff. They last forever (and can easily be tossed in the washing machine) and they can hold a lot more lather and soap than other implements. To give you some idea of how long a good puff will last, I got one free a long time ago with some body soap I bought and I've used it now for 12 years without any visible wear or staining. It's still snowy white and in perfect condition.

This method is actually relatively old-fashioned in Japan. People used to use buckets of water to rinse themselves after a soaping up outside the bath in public baths. As more homes got private baths and hot water in every room, things have changed to a more wasteful method. However, I've read that a lot of Japanese people are trying to turn off the water as much as possible in the shower and I'm hoping more Western folks do as well. Ironically, the Western style of bathing by soaking in "dirty water" essentially accomplishes similar water saving. If you wash in the tub, then rinse off with the shower afterward, it's almost certainly just as good with no worse a result.

Unfortunately, while this is all great in the summer, it's going to be very hard to do in the winter in a poorly insulated apartment with no heating in the bath or even in the room adjacent to it. I'll try to tough it out, but there may be a return to full on showers in the winter.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Getting What You Deserve

Back before my CH was the angel that brought the sun which warmed my spirit and brightened my days, he was my pen friend. During the brief period of time when we weren't over the moon about each other, we each made a list of the attributes we both felt should be present in a perfect mate. The discussion of this list may have been fueled by a latent attraction or the fact that the CH long before he was my CH had gone through an emotionally difficult break-up with a girlfriend. The types of things he did and did not want were foremost in his mind when considering what went wrong, particularly since his ex is a nice person and they got on so well before it all went wrong.

When we compared our list, I recall that we each listed 10 items and that he fit 8 of my criteria easily and possibly all of them in some sense. The only one he felt somewhat strongly did not apply to him was "ambitious," though he probably saw "ambition" differently than I did. I wasn't hoping for someone who was going to become a doctor or join the peace corps. I was thinking mainly of someone who wanted to engage in some sort of "professional" work. In other words, I was hoping for someone who didn't aspire to no more than working in a local gas station or convenience store and spend most nights at locals bars getting sauced then cheating on their wives by sleeping with their sisters-in-law. That was the way that most of the local males in my area ended up. Though the list is lost forever, I do recall that certain things were not on it. Being attractive, tall, rich, having high status, and an impressive education were all absent from my list. Mainly, I wanted someone who was intelligent, emotionally stable, funny, kind, communicative, affectionate and attentive.

I often tell people that they get the spouse they deserve based on their priorities and I completely believe that is true. If you get someone who is a shallow gold-digger, then your priorities in choosing your mate landed you that type of person. It will likely come as no surprise to anyone that many people (from my own culture, I don't say this to Japanese people) disagree with my assertion in this regard. The most vigorous disagreement comes from those who have had bad break-ups and divorces. I'm sure such people feel as if they were wonderful and were tricked, taken advantage of, duped, or witnessed a dramatic change of character when everything went wrong in the relationship. Such people are likely misunderstanding what I mean when I say you get the spouse you "deserve" though this is likely due to my choice of words. I certainly do not mean a person with a bad spouse is a bad person who "deserves" the pain of a rotten relationship. It's more the case that the way in which they rule out certain parties and include other parties results in them getting the person they ended up with. If you're going to reject good people in favor of people who have shortcomings, then you deserve the one with shortcomings. More often than not, beauty is the reason those shortcomings are ignored initially.

Note that I have rarely met anyone who didn't put "attractive" on their list of priorities (near the top or at the top) except my husband and I. That is not to say my husband isn't as cute as all get-out and doesn't have the kindest face ever to exist (even my students will remark immediately after meeting him that he has "kindly eyes"), but rather that that was a "bonus" and not a requirement of my loving him. Inevitably, anyone who puts physical beauty on the list defends this choice by saying that it is natural for humans to want beauty and that you can't marry someone to whom you are not sexually attracted. This is true, but the fact of the matter is that beauty is one of the worst criteria for choosing a mate in modern culture where producing off-spring is not the most important result of the relationship and relationships revolve around higher order needs than putting bison on the table for dinner.

What most people either don't realize or simply fail to consider is that every positive "yin" you get in a person's character will come with a negative "yang". Ambition often brings single-mindedness, a lack of attention, and one's partner appearing lower on the totem pole than a job. My CH's laid-back nature (which I adore) brings a certain amount of laziness and a lack of ambition. Fortunately, these things don't trouble me. In fact, one of the ways in which I have become sanguine about aspects of my mate's character which initially troubled me was to realize that they were the flip-side of the coin. I couldn't have the things I treasured in him without some of the things which may not make my life the easiest. If I can't live with "tails" coming up once in awhile on the character coin, then I can't have "heads". You have to appreciate the good aspects of your partner enough to be patient with the not so good ones or you're simply being unfair.

One of the lessons I teach is about relationships. Part of the lesson is asking the student what they value in a partner. After hearing their lists, I try to impress upon my students that they can't have it all. I also try to dissuade them from making appearance the highest priority by letting them know that beauty lasts 20 years at best and then you live with only the personality. It's the structural integrity of the house that matters, not the attractiveness of the facade.

All of these thoughts about relationships were initiated when I saw pictures of Joseph at Tame Goes Wild with his fiancee. He's getting married very soon and seeing pictures of him and his bride-to-be planting a tree before leaving England for Japan further fueled my belief that they are going to be the type of couple who deserve each other in the best possible way. I met Joseph when he worked as a temporary worker at my former office and he was quite a different person then compared to now (as was I, I'm sure). He's aspiring to be a positive person who contributes to the world in the best possible way and I hope he and his *Twinkle* spend the rest of their lives working together to do all the good things they dream about doing. I'm sure the world will be a better place for their union.

Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. *Twinkle*, and many happy returns!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Even Expats Get Stimulated

There was (at least) one episode of Beavis & Butthead where Butthead attempts to read a sign but, being a semi-illiterate, well, butt-head, he can't read all of the words. When he reads, he sounds out a few words that he can manage and just says "words, words, (sounded out word), words, words, (sounded out word)." He tunes out anything which he can't be troubled to make out and reads only the parts he cares about.

When my CH and I got our passports full of many pages and only one that seemed to really matter (the front one with identification and photo), we essentially did a Butthead on the passport's contents. It was like "personal data, pages, pages, pages, visa, pages, pages." There are a lot of blank pages and some historical quotes and warnings that don't really amount to much in a U.S. passport. Like Butthead, we found the stuff we wanted to know and ignored the rest. Unfortunately, also like Butthead, we missed things we actually needed to know.

We missed the part in our passport which said that we have to file income tax returns to the U.S. government every year when we reside in a foreign country. You'd think that living and working in a foreign country would relieve you of the need to file an income tax form back home, but that's not the way it works. You have to file two returns, one in Japan and one for the U.S. government.

My CH and I didn't file for the first decade or so that we lived in Japan due to our lack of careful reading. A temporary coworker from the U.S. was the one who eventually clued us in on the fact that we should be filing and this sent us into a panic. In the end, everything was okay. The I.R.S. didn't hassle us or punish us. It probably helps that we have never made enough money in Japan to have to actually pay taxes back home. I'm guessing the reason for the exemption for expats is that they figure we're already forking over enough in Japan and double-taxing us on our entire income would seem rather unfair.

Because we don't actually pay any tax to the U.S., news of economic stimulus checks didn't really engage us. We didn't think that expatriates would qualify for such checks since they are not really in a position to do much stimulating of the U.S. economy. I did receive several letters from the U.S. government saying we were eligible, but I didn't take any of it seriously until the most recent announcement said we were going to actually get check. Even then, I wasn't really going to believe it until I saw it.

Obviously, I finally saw it. We received a check for $600.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about the money. I didn't pay into the tax system because I make too little money to have to do so, but I'm getting tax money as if I had been paying like everyone else. I'm also not a fan of the fact that this is essentially borrowing against the future to bribe voters for now. That being said, I'm not going to turn down money that is sent to me as doing so isn't going to change anything. If someone gave me the option to check a box on a form somewhere and say, "take this money and pay down the enormous deficit in America instead of sending it to me, I'd do it. That's not really an option (and I'd probably stand alone in making such a choice).

If it helps any, the very day this check arrived, my husband spend $630 at Costco buying almost all American-made or produced goods. The biggest ticket items were vast quantities of American-made Colby-Jack cheese (10 lbs. of cheese in all), 5 lbs. of Starbucks Espresso beans, 10 steaks from U.S. cattle, and California grapes. Of course, with or without the stimulus check, we'd have bought these things as we always do.

We can't actually do anything in Japan with the check itself as such things can't be cashed here as far as I know. If they can be, it's in an out of the way place and likely for an absurd fee. We'll be sending it back to our bank in America and putting it in our checking account where we'll use it to stimulate the U.S. economy next time my husband goes to California to visit his parents.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Natchel Maple Bran Cookies

The pen is there to show you the size of the cookie. It's about 1/3 of the length of an average ballpoint pen.

There are some types of snack foods that will always get a sampling no matter how many times we try a Japanese version and find it lacking. For my CH, maple is one of those things which is irresistible. He's probably sampled most of the maple cookies, pastries, and cakes available at one time or another in Japan and found very few of them to be repeat purchases. Of course, sampling "all" of them isn't saying much. Maple is not something you see included in most foods in Japan.

Dare makes the most sinfully tasty maple cookie he's ever had in Tokyo and they are available on occasion in Japanese shops which carry imports. However, they are expensive and the bag is rather big. It's not the sort of thing you want to leave lying around the weak-willed and hungry. The purchase of a bag of Dare Maple Leaf cookies almost always is followed by a night of regret and physical discomfort.

When something new pops up touting maple flavor (and if it's maple, there's always a maple leaf on the box), I pick it up for my husband to sample. I'm not a huge fan of maple, but I do find it appealing at times. When I saw the tiny box of "Natchel" maple bran cookies pictured above for about ¥150 ($1.40), I tossed them in the shopping basket. The name is clearly meant to bring the word "natural" to mind. The Japanese characters for the word "natural" are rather close to the name of the product.

The filling to cookie ratio is just barely adequate to add maple flavor to the cookies.

The box contains three 5-packs of tiny cookies. And when I say, "tiny", I'm talking about a cookie roughly half the size of an Oreo. The description in green on the box mentions that there is bran in the cookies. You can see little flecks of bran in the biscuit. The cookies themselves are reminiscent of digestive biscuits in terms of their thickness and density and graham crackers in the coarseness of their texture. The cookies smell weakly of maple though the box goes out of its way to tell you that they contain 1.6% maple sugar. The sweet smell of maple really hits you though if you take the sandwich apart and expose the filling.

The biscuit has a hint of an earthy feel and taste from the bran. They strongly remind me of a maple breakfast cookie sold in Japan which I've had before. It's possible that the breakfast cookie was made by Glico (which makes these Natchel cookies) and the basic recipe wasn't modified all that much. They crunch just like a digestive biscuit. The maple filling seems to taste as much of caramel as maple, though the overall sweetness and flavor of the filling is relatively muted.

Though they do have bran in them, these cookies can't be mistaken for something "healthy". Each packet of 5 cookies has 161 calories and one could easily polish off an entire packet as a snack. Fortunately, the way in which they are packaged discourages one from opening up another and scarfing down more than 5. In my case, I managed to drop two on the floor from the first package we opened so we were spared some calories through my clumsiness. The main ingredients are (in order of concentration) flour, margarine, sugar, shortening, bran, brown sugar, dextrin, milk sugar, maple sugar, and salt. Since maple sugar comes in just before salt, you can see there's not much of it in there. Also, there are a lot of different sugars in the mix.

I asked my husband if he'd buy these himself if he was in the mood for a cookie and he said he would. They're not Dare Maple Leaf cookies, but they are pleasant and the size and packaging are very helpful in curbing over-indulgence.

Note: There is also a blueberry version of this cookie according to Glico's web site. However, blueberry is very resistible and my local market didn't carry that flavor.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Oh No, We're Gonna Get Sued

A long time ago, my father-in-law used to send us videotapes of The Late Show With David Letterman. In the show, Dave would make a joke about some business or person and a little choral piece that said, "oh no, we're gonna get sued" would play. Dave could get away with jokes at the expense record company weasels, famous stupid people, or corporations because he's a comedian, has a legion of lawyers, and deep pockets from which to pay them. Comedians can say things in the service of humor that others may not get away with.

Bloggers, on the other hand, cannot say just anything they want. In fact, not only can they not say whatever they want but they can't allow their commenters to say just anything either. A recent article which I came across via Digg mentioned that lawsuits against bloggers are on the rise. The thing about the article which caught my attention was the fact that the first person mentioned was being sued for something someone else said, not for something he himself wrote. The reason this fact struck a chord with me was that a very similar situation has happened to me.

About a week or so after I shuttered my former blog, I received notification via comments from a law firm based in a European country. They were threatening me because of an anonymous comment made about one of my posts. The post in question was about an automated movie rental service which had just opened up a branch near my home. In my post, I spoke positively about the service in terms of its convenience, easy to use on-line reservation system and low rental fees. I mentioned looking forward to using it. The post itself could have been seen as a mild endorsement of the service.

Some time later, an anonymous person commented that the service was a rip-off and linked to an article which mentioned business practices by the company which were shady or unethical. I allowed the comment through because the article looked genuine despite the fact that I didn't feel the situation related to people who used the service like myself but rather to people who purchased the franchise. For all I knew, it was true, though I also wondered if someone had a grudge against the company after a bad experience.

The letter from the law firm that I received stated that I would be held liable for the slanderous comment if I allowed it to remain. It also said I was not to share the correspondence from the law firm with anyone. In other words, they didn't want me to post their threat. I will say that the anonymous comment about this company's untrustworthy nature felt like it may have been far more factual after that letter. What sort of company trolls the internet looking for anything negative said about it and threatens to sue anyone who says such things? In my book, it's a company with something to hide which labors long and hard to keep covering up the truth.

I discussed the situation with my CH and he advised me simply to delete the threatening comment from the law firm and ignore it. Since I'd already been through a lot of hassles about my (former) blog because of in-laws who read into what I wrote and saw (imaginary) attacks against a particular in-law, I'd had enough hassle with my blog, so I simply decided to delete the entire post and all comments. I figured that, if I was going to be bullied into removing a negative comment, I wasn't going to leave the positive post sitting there. I also decided that I'd no longer use the movie rental service once the pre-paid card we had to buy when signing up was used up.

Neither my CH nor I felt that a person could or should be sued for what someone else said. After all, I didn't say anything negative about the company. It turns out, however, that we are responsible not only for what we say on our blogs, but for what we allow others to say as well. When I received the threatening letter about the comment on my blog, I thought it was simply meant to scare me into removing the comment and nothing would come of it regardless of what action I took. The article linked above makes me reconsider that conclusion. I'm not sure if a European law firm can sue me while I'm blogging from Japan, but I can't say that I'm glad that I didn't test the possibility.

My feelings about the fact that bloggers can be sued for their content are mixed. On the one hand, I believe people shouldn't be able to say whatever ugly things they wish about someone, particularly if the intent is clearly a wish to harm rather than offer an opinion, experience or personal conclusion about a service, product or person. In general, I believe that freedom of expression ends at someone else's (reasonable) right to privacy and respect. If bloggers make the effort to ensure their subject's real names cannot be inferred either by making associations between the blogger and the subject, or by association with their work, then I'm all for freedom of expression. Of course, writing that a company is disreputable and linking to an article about it is completely within the realm of free speech.

There's something oddly legitimizing behind bloggers getting sued, particularly for comments or content that appear on their site but are not from the blogger herself. Suing bloggers is a way of saying that they are publishers (and not piddly, insignificant hacks) and therefore are responsible for their content just as any other publishing or media entity is. This may seem like a warped way of looking at the situation, but being threatened with legal action for your blog's content says that blogs matter. They matter enough to invest in lawyers to try and shut them up.

Some people may feel that the best course of action when threatened by lawyers to remove or alter content is to fight so that the right to freedom of expression remains intact. Many people may feel that they should stand on principle and battle it out and such people may feel that I was a coward for simply deleting the post and all the comments rather than "standing up for what's right." After all, if everyone just rolled over like I did, we'd be well on our way to being censored. To this I'd say that some things in life are worth fighting for on principle and some are not.

If my former blog had been a different entity and served another purpose, I may have fought the good fight. The blog wasn't about exposing bad business or reviewing companies that provided services. It was simply a modest creative outlet for me (as is this blog). Its role in my life was that of an aside, not a core component of my existence and any particular post was relatively insignificant in the scheme of things. I couldn't see investing my time, emotional energy, or money in defending an anonymous commenter's opinion just to prove a point. If that makes me too tired or cowardly to stand up for the rights of people to freely express themselves, then so be it.

I often have the impression that people spend far too much of their time and energy proving points that have no impact in the larger scheme of things rather than directing that energy toward positive and constructive outcomes. In such cases, it's more about ego than about ethics. There are things in this world that are very important and I think some battles are very worthwhile, but many others are just ways of distracting ourselves from the fact that we aren't involved in more meaningful pursuits and deluding ourselves into believing we matter so much that we deserve the power to do whatever want.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Born in a Barn

When I was young, I did a lot of the sort of things that kids do when they are not yet shackled with the myriad of details and concerns of adult life. I think that life lasted for me until about the age of 12 when my self-absorbed obliviousness ended and I caught on to all the stuff my parents never for one second tried to hide from me about the harsh realities of life. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for making me feel old before I was legally old enough to vote.

Before I was consumed by a life of responsibility and worry, I'd blithely do things like leave the door open or stand in the doorway in the dead of winter allowing the frosty bitterness inside and the precious, precious heat outside. Invariably, as I stood there, my mother or father would shout, "close the damn door, were you born in a barn!" This puzzling, but multi-purpose, statement could apply to allowing the cold in in winter or allowing bugs in in the summer. Had I been older, and less fearful of punishment, I'd have retorted with, "you know I was not born in a barn because you're the one who gave birth to me."

Now that I'm older and more attentive to things like bugs and allowing precious air of the desired temperature to escape, I can empathize better with my parents concerns. In particular, the issue of allowing insects in is an issue for me because I have about 10 or so people coming to my apartment for private lessons every week. Invariably, several of them will just stand in the door allowing it to hang open behind them. No matter how many times I say, "please, come in," they stand there. If I make the mistake of saying anything like, "how are you" or "it's hot, isn't it," they will stand there holding the door ajar while addressing my polite smalltalk as if it somehow helps them speak.

Just outside of my front door, my landlords (who are also my neighbors) maintain a small garden of nondescript foliage. The whole thing is dark and relatively unimpressive. It looks like someone threw seeds around in a random fashion and cultivated what happened to grow. It'd be a nice plot of nature in the concrete jungle if it weren't for the fact that it's a haven for bugs. When the students come in, this heavily infested garden is lurking right behind them and the door being held open is an invitation for insects to come into the apartment. In fact, mosquitoes so love to raise families in there that students who stand at the door for a very short time waiting for me to answer will be bitten as they wait. Of course, once the mosquitoes have snacked on succulent student flesh outside, they come inside and have my husband or I for dessert.

I've even gone out of my way to talk about the situation with the students who have been holding the door open. As we sit in the lesson and a bug flies around distracting us or if I see a student intently scratching (it's always a mosquito bite), I mention the fact that there are lots of insects in the neighbor's garden and when the student comes in and holds the door open, bugs fly in with them. I do this to no avail. Even when I make it clear that their behavior is what is letting insects in, they still hang in the doorway with the door open. I'm guessing they do it unconsciously.

Maybe I should start saying, "were you born in a barn?" when they do this. It probably won't work any better for them than it did for my mother, but I think it's supposed to ease my frustrations.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


What is the first rule of life in a Japanese domicile? Remove your shoes. Knowing this is the easy part. The hard part is convincing Japanese people that they aren't the most special, clean and unique people on the entire planet and the only ones whose culture embraces shoe removal.

One of my students did a home stay in Arizona during her first trip to the U.S. and told me that she was shocked that her home stay family took off their shoes upon entering their home. She was absolutely incredulous when I told her that my in-laws also required people to remove their shoes upon entering their home as did my one of my aunts and my maternal grandmother. Yes, many Americans do not take off their shoes when entering their homes, but many of them do.

Does taking your shoes off make you a paragon of cleanliness? No, it doesn't make you anything in particular. It could mean you're clean or it could mean you're too lazy to vacuum. It could also mean that you don't have any pets who will track in as much or more dirt than humans (or leave hair everywhere) or that your flooring or carpeting shows dirt more easily than others.

In cases where there is a culture-wide shoe removal tradition (as opposed to individual choices as is the case in the U.S.), racially-determined attention to cleanliness is not the main factor in creating a fastidious culture. The main factors are weather and technological development. People who live in cold weather most of the time are far less likely to adopt the custom of shoe removal as their feet are going to freeze on cold floors without some extra insulation. I'm guessing few indigenous Alaskan peoples were kicking off their mocs to keep the floor clean. They'd rather keep their toes.

In terms of technology, people who don't develop along lines where they live further from the floor are more likely to adopt a custom of shoe removal. The Japanese traditionally sit, sleep, and eat on the floor. When you're that close to the ground all the time, having the cleanest possible floor becomes rather more important than when you're perched quite high above it, especially if you want to keep your blanket, clothes, and matzo mattress (aka futon) from turning black in no time.

Yet, when it comes to the issue of shoe removal, a little shine of smug and superior comes through any time the topic is broached. Every person (from any country) who says he or she has a habit of shoe removal upon entering the home speaks as if they are the pinnacle of clean and sanitary living. There is an undercurrent of 'we invented the unique notion of taking off our shoes out of thin air' or that their culture stands alone as a paragon of shining whiteness and purity for their customs. Okay, that's not exactly true of most Americans who don't give a rat's ass about what other people think of their habits, but I recently encountered someone who said that shoe removal was a "Canadian thing" for cleanliness and comfort. Yes, the Canadians are known throughout the world for their hockey, maple syrup, Mounties and shoe removal upon entering the home.

When I return to the U.S., I probably will take my shoes off at the door all the time because it is a bit cleaner, but I'm not going to be smug about it or put on airs of being closer to God because of it. After all, wiping your shoes off at the door is probably only marginally dirtier than removing them anyway, but I think the notion of wiping your feet is nowhere in the picture when shoe removal is discussed (and the Japanese don't use welcome mats). It's not like people in cultures where shoes are kept on are tracking in half the lawn every time they walk in.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Atypical Anniversary

How many times have we seen television shows where a special day comes around and the husband forgets the day? The wife starts to simmer as the day wears on and her husband doesn't realize it's her birthday or their anniversary. If the story plays out true to form, the wife will get extremely angry, but the dim-witted husband will eventually make it up to his wife and they'll live happily ever after, or at least until next week's unimaginative cliché-ridden script shows its familiar face. Sometimes I wonder if this scenario actually ever happens in real life. I figure it must happen at least occasionally or this old chestnut of a plot line wouldn't have enough resonance with people to get constantly recycled.

Yesterday was the 21st anniversary of the day which my husband and I regard as our most important (more important than our wedding day itself), the day we admitted our feelings for each other and made a commitment to each other. It was also the first time that it was completely forgotten by one of us. Of course, the one who forgot was me. I'm not a typical wife in most ways. Perhaps I'm simply an atypical female and it has nothing to do with being married. It's hard for me to know since I often feel I can't relate to the Japanese wives around me and I know so few married foreign women. All I can say is that I don't like jewelry, shoes, perfume, or clothes. I'd rather spend all day maintaining computer systems than go shopping. I'd also rather talk to my husband than any other friend and I never complain about him behind his back to other people (though I confess that I often compliment him "behind his back" to other people...who would very much like me to shut up about him.) I also forget birthdays and now anniversaries.

On the left are two individual pieces of cheesecake and chocolate Swiss cake roll. On the right is a mont blanc (chestnut) Swiss cake roll.

Last night my husband came home from work and pulled two (small) boxes of expensive cakes out of his backpack. I told him he was very sweet for going to such trouble to surprise me with something so nice and he smiled at me and asked, "what date is it?" I had no idea what he was referring to until I looked up at the calendar and said, "it's July 18." I was so slow that I didn't get it until I'd said the date out loud and it's enormous importance hit me. That sort of slow-wittedness doesn't just exist in bad comedy scripts.

Fortunately for me, my husband is understanding and wasn't the least bit upset that I didn't remember. I think the fact that I worship him on a daily basis may help mitigate some of the damage of my forgetting our anniversary. Still, I'm hoping that I don't forget again. I'm starting to feel like my brain is a library that has long been filled to capacity and some very important information has been shoved into the darkest, dustiest and hardest to reach areas of my mental library. I want those books to be put out front where they can be easily reached. I'm just not quite sure how to move them there.

Friday, July 18, 2008

What your trash says about you

Our trash was returned for (unintentional) naughtiness.

People who don't live in Japan may wonder why every foreigner talks about trash. We talk about it because it is a BIG DEAL. It's not a big deal because it's so complicated, though it certainly can be, but because punishment for getting it wrong ranges from having your hand slapped with a sticker (as above) for sorting incorrectly to being harassed right out of your apartment by self-appointed garbage Nazi neighbors. People take trash seriously so you must do so as well.

Several months ago, the ward we live in changed their trash policies. Before this change, the only trash that was picked up by the local government was classified as "burnable", "nonburnable" and recyclable cardboard, cans and glass. Those who were inclined to recycle more (i.e., me) had to sort trash of their own volition and cart it off to a store that happened to offer bins for other sorts of trash. When the regulations were changed, I was happy because I no longer had to schlep PET bottles, milk cartons, and Styrofoam food trays to the local market for recycling. The change allowed me to not only put these items out for recycling with regular trash, but to also add paper to the list of things I could recycle.

This sticker is telling us the items in the bag are OK to incinerate.

Unfortunately, we misunderstood what fell under the heading of "burnable" trash and put out a bag of items we thought could not be burned during one of my closet clearings. Apparently, we weren't the only ones who didn't quite comprehend because our neighbors also had these red stickers on their trash on the day that we got ours. The only difference was that we dragged our bag of incorrectly sorted trash back into the apartment until the proper day for its removal and our neighbors just left their bags sit outside for the next 4 days. This bears out the general notion that Japanese people mainly care about cleanliness in spaces they inhabit and don't care about other spaces (something which is confirmed time and again).

A "pura" mark

Among the items that were in that bag were some hard plastic items like old computer components. A good example of the type of item in it was an old translucent orange plastic USB ten-key pad which I used to use with my tangerine iBook. I was under the impression that such items were not incinerated because they produced toxic chemicals when burned. Apparently, I was wrong. We have a flyer which explains things, but it isn't clear enough and can be confusing. For instance, (clear) drinking glasses are nonburnable trash, but jars and bottles are recyclable despite the fact that the glass appears to be identical.

Since our early slip-up, we haven't made any mistakes with sorting our trash, but a lot of people around the neighborhood are still having problems. Every week, I see trash bags left on the streets and in front of homes with stickers on them telling them they've done it wrong. The other tenants in our building often continue to either make such mistakes or are sufficiently indifferent to properly handling their trash that they toss things in willy-nilly. The biggest point on which they are guilty of laziness is dealing with what is called "pura" (プラ) sorts of trash. I'm not exactly sure what makes something fall under this classification as a wide variety of items are included, but it is, essentially, plastic trash of a certain sort which can be recycled. The umbrella of pura is very wide so most types of plastic that fall in this category have a special mark to guide people in doing proper sorting.

The main hassle of sorting trash aside from the fact that it requires one to maintain five or more separate containers ("pura", paper, burnable, nonburnable, glass, cans, PET) is that it becomes increasingly troublesome to process your trash. The idea of anything being "disposable" goes out the window when you have to wash, dry, crush, and cut up all your trash. If I have some take out curry, for instance, I don't just eat my food and toss the packaging. I eat the food and have to wash the containers as if they were dishes and recycle them. The same goes for paper. You don't just chuck your milk carton in the bin when the milk is done. You wash it, dry it, cut it so it lies flat and keep it with other paper recyclables.

As one might imagine, this makes you very aware of how much waste you produce and of what type. In particular, I can't help but notice that the bag of "pura" (recyclable plastic) trash that my CH and I put out every week is much larger than most of our neighbors. My CH and I are not particularly wasteful people though. We very rarely eat instant or take away food that comes in plastic one-serving containers. Most of our "pura" trash consists of unavoidable food trays and plastic wrap from purchasing meat, vegetables, eggs, and fruit.

After puzzling the discrepancy, I realized that we had more of this sort of trash because I make most of our food at home. Most of our neighbors are younger than us and most likely eat out for most of their meals so whatever trash they produce is tossed away somewhere else. It's not that we are more wasteful, but rather that all our trash is centralized.

In a similar vein, I've noticed that I can tell how healthily my CH and I are eating by the volume of organic trash we produce. While we don't have to separate organic waste from other burnable trash, I have done so as a matter of course for many years because it's best to keep it isolated in a closed container to control garbage odors. I'm sure that it also makes it easier for the authorities that compost trash to separate our tiny bit of it out as it's all food scraps. If we're consuming lots of fruit and vegetables, this bin can get pretty full of things like corn cobs, avocado pits and peels, banana peels, and apple cores. In the summer, it's a most unpleasant bucket to open up and add things to, even when it's emptied every 3 or 4 days (when burnable trash is collected).

Sometimes I think about how we could reduce the volume of trash we produce but I almost always reach the conclusion that the delivery system for food in Japan makes it nearly impossible. When the stores mainly offer food shrink-wrapped and on Styrofoam trays, we have little choice but to buy it in this wasteful manner. Similarly, there is no way to purchase milk of any kind except in cardboard containers. Even most fruit that is not trapped behind a wall of plastic wrap and resting on a tray comes with a little foam mesh jacket to protect it from bruising.

It seems to me that, if people are going to get serious about waste reduction, one of the big things that needs to change is the delivery method for goods. There's a bottled water machine at one of the local markets and people refill the same jug there again and again. If such machines could distribute milk, juice, etc., it would be a step in the right direction. An easier step, of course, would be to stop using trays to display food so that it is flat and attractive. However, I'm not holding my breath, especially not in Japan where appearance plays such a big part in consumer decisions.


As an aside, I will mention that buying meat at the local butcher shop is more expensive, but they don't use trays and provide less wasteful packaging. I used to buy meat there, but there was a stretch of time when they refused to sell me what I wanted four times in a row. I don't know why they did this, but I stopped going there after being refused so many times. And, no, I was never rude to them or did anything incorrect. I'd just make a request and they said they could not fill it. I can only assume they did not want my business anymore or would prefer I not patronize their shop for what to me was an obvious reason.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cottage Cheese Making

This looks like a scoop, but it's a large lump.

With worldwide dairy prices going up, the price of cheese has been rocketing upward. In Japan, cottage cheese, at about ¥250 ($2.40) for about a cup, was expensive before prices went up. Now, it's gone from expensive to "obscene" as the price fluctuates between ¥330 ($3.11) and ¥380 ($3.60). If you're not a fan of cottage cheese, this isn't bad news. If you love it (and I do), this is really frustrating. I can't allow myself to pay that much for something which I can eat in two sittings tops. If it's a main protein component, I can eat the whole thing in one go. That makes it much more expensive than a quantity of chicken which will last me through three main dishes.

For quite some time, I've been thinking of making homemade ricotta cheese because it's another thing which is obscenely expensive in Japan. In the past, I've substituted cottage cheese for ricotta in lasagna, but now that the former has gone insanely expensive, I felt it was time to act on making my own ricotta.

Little did I know that cottage cheese and ricotta go hand in hand. First you make one and then you can make the other from its byproduct. The basic recipe for cottage cheese is the same as the Indian cheese called paneer. This recipe is very simple. You boil milk, add an acidic compound (lemon juice or vinegar), let it sit, then drain off the liquids (whey).

Little Miss Moffet would be very hungry about now. My curds are on the left and the whey is on the right.

I followed the instructions from this recipe. The only difference was that I used a dash of salt. I boiled a liter of 4.4% fat milk (which only costs ¥180) and added the juice from half a lemon (which costs ¥25). The whey looks very yellow because of the lemon juice. I used both a metal strainer and a cotton cloth to strain the curds because I didn't want the whey to be contaminated by any stray cheese particles. Since the whey will be used for ricotta and any curds that get in the whey will make hard beads in the ricotta, I felt some precautions were necessary.

I didn't squeeze the cheese as much as the paneer recipe suggests since I'm looking for cottage cheese, though I probably squeezed it more than necessary. This made for very firm curds that did not have whey separating from them as is often the case in store-bought cottage cheese.

The cottage cheese lump broken into more recognizable curds.

The important question is, how did it taste? Being impatient, I tasted it while it was still fresh and moderately warm. As was mentioned in the paneer recipe, it tasted like it's components - milk and lemon juice. I needed to salt it up to make it come close to what I buy in the store (and it was much better with salt). It was missing the small bit of "bite" I associate with cottage cheese and I'm guessing that's because I used lemon instead of vinegar. Also, I used ESL (extended shelf life) milk because that's what the store had. The problem with ESL milk is that it's already been boiled into oblivion before it is purchased and it has a distinct aftertaste. In the warm, fresh cottage cheese, this aftertaste was very present. Next time, I'm going to try it with much better milk and vinegar and see how it goes.

After letting it sit overnight in the refrigerator, I broke up the curds and salted it a bit more. The lemon taste had mellowed considerably and the ESL milk aftertaste had muted a bit. It is definitely better the next day and I'm sure it will be even better yet with a different type of milk. The preferable milk is farm fresh and unpasteurized, but that's pretty much out of the question for me as I believe such milk cannot be sold in Japan.

Even if this is as good as it gets, it's certainly good enough to choose making my own cottage cheese over paying outrageous prices. I especially feel it's worthwhile if the cottage cheese is to be used in cooking or flavored in some other fashion. However, I'm still going to eat what I made as a plain main component of lunch. The final cost analysis has this method cutting the price of cottage cheese in half.

As for the other half of this process, that is, making ricotta, that was a complete failure. Despite the fact that I saved the whey and allowed it to sit overnight as instructed, it did not form curds upon reboiling. The whole kitchen smelled like cheese, but the whey never formed any foam on top (or on the bottom) as it was supposed to and I simply had to toss the liquid out. I'm going to give this another try next time I make cottage cheese because I'm blaming the ESL milk for this problem.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Back when I was working at Nova, there was a British employee who introduced me to the use of "Hoover" to mean "any vacuum cleaner" much in the same way that Americans use "Kleenex" to mean any facial tissue or "Q-tip" to mean any cotton swab He said that he and his wife needed to "hoover" their floors because of the dust mites living in the tatami, but they hadn't purchased a "hoover" yet. (Incidentally, Japanese people use "Hotchkiss" to mean "stapler" is a similar adoption of a brand name as a generic item name.)

In my Nova days, both my CH and I were working full-time at our respective schools and one of the first things that fell by the wayside was vacuuming duty. There were times when the floor of our apartment had accumulated so much debris that it was necessary to scrape off the bits that stuck to our feet before getting into bed lest we drag crumbly bits into the sheets. That's not an admission of which I'm especially proud. However, it's also obviously not one of which I'm especially ashamed either or I wouldn't be admitting it here. And don't ask what it was that we were stepping in as it's been awhile and I don't remember. However, based on what tends to accumulate on the carpets these days, I'd guess it's lint from doing laundry, tiny bits of paper from torn edges of various paper products, (my very long) hair, mature dust bunnies, and crumbs from food preparation and consumption.

As I'm sure is the case with many people, I have harbored an intense dislike for vacuuming more than many other household tasks. In the past, during our salad days of debris-strewn floors, I'd enlist my CH to take care of it about once a month when I couldn't stand it anymore and he was fine to do it. Since quitting my full-time job and inviting private students into my house, I don't have the "luxury" of vacuuming only once a month. Now, I have to do it at a minimum of twice a week or risk my poor students having to brush debris off of their feet after being seated on the sofa.

Since I have an apartment which is so small that the power cord on the vacuum can stretch and reach all rooms, you'd think it wouldn't be such a big deal. The entire task usually takes no more than 15 minutes, and even that is with my hitting some nooks and crannies and the walls and maybe a computer keyboard. Still, I find lugging out the vacuum, assembling its hose and dragging it around the apartment an odious task 85% of the time. The only time I enjoy it the least little bit is just after the vacuum cleaner bag has been changed. At that point, it has extreme suction power and it's an effort to move it along the carpet. If it happens to suck up an errant corner of a sheet or a piece of paper, I have to turn it off and extract the object from its ravenous orifice.

The reason its satisfying when the suction is hyper-powered is that I feel like it's really digging in and doing something. When it's at its average power, it just seems like its doing no better than I could with a broom and some vigorous sweeping of the topsoil. Of course, it's really important to actually use a vacuum cleaner in Japan or your ankles will get nipped to pieces by "dani bugs" (dust mites) so any thought of cleaning with an old-fashioned sweep is off the table.

It's not so bad, really, but there are times when I say 'damn the students' feet' and just let it go for a whole week. As far as I know, no one has ever dropped my lesson because of a dirty floor, but somehow I doubt they'd tell me if they gave up English study because my crumbs stuck to their toes.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Orange Dessert Pocky

Unlike many people who are interested in Japanese snack foods, I'm not a fan of Pocky. I don't really have a problem with it, but I'm not really keen on it either. That being said, I will occasionally pick up a flavor that looks like it might be interesting. There is a wide variety of seasonal Pocky and flavors with limited availability. One of my recent samples in that line was coconut. It was actually very good, but quite expensive for the volume.

I've noticed orange "dessert" Pocky on several occasions and thought it might have potential, but never took the plunge. While I really love the mix of orange and chocolate, I also have had experiences with Japanese sweets that have done a horrible job with the mixture of those two tastes.

Dessert Pocky is different from regular Pocky in that it has an extra swirling of chocolate coating around the base coating flavor. It is sweeter than regular Pocky because of this, but the orange chocolate one had a slightly bittersweet flavor which went very well with the orange. The flavor was exceptionally well-balanced and the orange wasn't artificial tasting.

The volume of chocolate on the pretzel stick is sufficiently thick that the stick itself is more like a vehicle to convey the coating and the biscuit itself doesn't have much influence on the experience of eating one of these except for providing a nice crunch.

You'd think that these would be decadent and pretty high in calories, but each bag of 3 sticks (and the sticks are big) is 95 calories. I think most people would be very satisfied with 3 of them as a treat. I'm not sure if this is because the volume is lower than it appears when you eat them or if because both sorbitol and sucralose (low calorie and artificial sweeteners) are among the ingredients. In terms of taste, I wouldn't have guessed that artificial sweeteners of any type were involved.

These are so good that I may find myself having to resist buying them again and again. The price tag is a little on the high side though. One box of 12 sticks (four 3-packs) is about $2.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Morning Shopping

Yesterday morning I had an early morning lesson cancel (and unlike the situation in my previous post, I had no problems charging for this late cancellation) so I decided to do something I have very rarely done. I went shopping shortly after the local supermarket opened.

The last time I did this, I left the apartment too early and arrived about 15 minutes before the market opened and was left to hang around the front of the shop with some middle-aged and elderly ladies who filled their time by staring at and chattering about me. Yes, it's good to know that despite my efforts not to be a typical gaijin monkey who acts like a fool around the Japanese in order to endear myself to them and amuse them, I still can play the role merely by being present. Eventually, one of them wandered over to the bench I'd parked myself on and asked me (in Japanese) if I was French. I'm not sure what particular set of characteristics made her speculate that I was from France (blue eyes? strawberry blonde hair? disapproving frown at being talked about as if I weren't a real person?), but I decided that I could play the part even if I'm not French.

Some of you may not know this, but French culture generally does not regard talking to strangers as obligatory. I say some of you may not realize this because I didn't know it until recently when I read through the section of "Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands" which covered France. They aren't necessarily being unfriendly, they just don't view talking to and helping out random people as their social responsibility as some other cultures do. So, I did as a French person might and just looked away and ignored the question.

After that experience, I've been very careful not to get to the store before it opens anymore. I just don't enjoy being the obvious source of amusement for the locals as much as some people do. This morning, I arrived about 15 minutes after it opened. The experience was surprisingly different in that there were only 2 or 3 older ladies hanging around just as the store opened, but there was an old person explosion shortly after the store opened. Inside, it was like "Night of the Living Dead." I'm not implying they were hungering for human flesh (though they were hungry for food, it seems), but there were an awful lot of slow moving, withered creatures moving around in there in a scary fashion.

I'm not an ageist, don't get me wrong. I teach some elderly people who are more energetic and in better health than I. Individually and person to person, the older folks in Japan are a blessing. The problem with a shop full of random old people is that they've been up since 5:00 am twiddling their thumbs (or in my neighbor's case, finding things to bang on in front of their home which is conveniently located behind my bedroom window). They're waiting for shopping areas to open so they can fill the time with slow meandering punctuated by microscopic inspection of every item they have a passing interest in. They're a hazard to navigation, especially when one is squeezing in early morning shopping before a lesson and just wants to get the damn thing over with.

At the end of the obstacle course which was my shopping, an old lady asked me for my now empty shopping cart and basket. I happily surrendered it to her as it just saved me from having to put them away. It did draw my attention to something which I'd never noticed before. Young people rarely use the tiny plastic shopping carts and tend to just carry a basket. When you get a large market full of elderly people, the limited supply of non-child-holding mini-carts is quickly exhausted (hence the need to get my cart). At this particular market, there are two racks of carts. One has a seat on the back for small kids and is awkward-looking and bigger. There are always a ton of the kid carts around since our neighborhood is perhaps more top-heavy with old folks than most and Japan's birthrate is low (about 1.5 kids per couple).

I'm guessing younger people just carry a basket because it doesn't tax them physically. I always use a cart because of my back, though it's so flimsy that I can't really lean on it much. Well, there's also the fact that I'm usually buying 10 bottles of Diet Coke and my arms aren't strong enough to lug them around for the duration. The fact that old folks are moving with the pacing and navigation skills of an inebriated turtle and wielding carts that are half the width of the aisle (which is a testimonial to how small the aisles are, not how big the carts are) makes the shopping experience all the more challenging.

After a variety of experiences, I've decided that the best time to shop is between 12:00 and 1:00 pm because most of the old folks have tottered on home to make lunch and the shops are relatively zombie-free. Unfortunately, noon is not usually a good time for me to shop because I've either got lessons scheduled or am preparing for early afternoon lessons so I guess I'll continue to make these sort of tongue-in-cheek complaints on this blog. You've been warned. ;-)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Business Rules or the Golden Rule?

One of my student called 30 minutes before her scheduled lesson time and canceled her lesson yesterday. According to the rules of the referral agency that collects fees from students, I'm allowed to charge any student for any lesson canceled on the same day, though they ask that the teacher make allowances if there is a natural disaster like a typhoon or earthquake that prevents a student from making it to the lesson.

In the past, I was lauded by both a student and the agency for having the decency to allow a student whose sister died not to pay for a late cancellation. I guess they expect teachers to be utterly mercenary, but I think it'd be pretty awful to rub a few grains of salt in an emotional wound by charging for a canceled lesson due to a family tragedy.

I am presented with a little bit of a quandary in terms of deciding to charge my student or not. As the phone was ringing, I was hearing thunder loudly roll outside, but it never rained here. She said that she canceled because it was raining where she was and the trains weren't running. That means that she couldn't get to my apartment unless she sought an alternate form of transport like a taxi (if she was telling the truth, and I'm inclined to believe she was).

While her "excuse" for canceling is quite reasonable, I've gotten burned in the past for acting in accord with my ethics (that is, treating people as I'd like to be treated) rather than in line with what business guidelines allow. I'm guessing I'll come down on the side of not charging her because, if I were in her shoes, that's a courtesy I'd appreciate being extended to me. I just have to shush the nagging voice which says I'll be taken advantage of later if I take the high road.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Orchid's Quesadillas

When I mentioned to my friend ("the wombat stuffer") that I was going to post a recipe for quesadillas on my blog, he said something to the effect of 'aren't quesadillas just cheese and chicken basically?' He's a nice guy and a lot of fun to be around, but he sometimes unintentionally harshes my buzz. I hope some day to paper train him so he makes some lucky woman a pristine specimen of a husband. Okay, maybe not pristine, but at least a little less annoying and hitting the paper on occasion. I'm guessing that completely getting him not to have little accidents in the house will require more hands on time than I'm getting (or could possibly want).

Anyway, I told the old wombat king that my recipe is different because I prepare the chicken in my own special way. It's also different because it's mine, by cracky! Also, I can tell you how to do this with items you can get in Japan which is no small deal. People who live in California like dear Mr. Stuffer can saunter into any market any time and toss Tex-Mex ingredients in their shopping basket around the clock. Those of us in the land of raw fish and rice have no such luck.

First of all, let me say that you can make your own tortillas as I detailed in my former blog, but it's really a pain when it's so hot like it is now. I picked up mine from the Foreign Buyer's Club deli which delivers them frozen in about a week for the bargain price of about 55 yen per tortilla. They are also monster tortillas which are far larger than anything I've ever been able to make or buy in Tokyo. We bought 3 double packs and tossed them in the freezer for the future. This reduces the price to 45 yen per tortilla and makes the shipping cost more worthwhile.

Besides the tortillas I used natural mixed cheese from an average Japanese market, a couple of large chicken (1/2) breasts, a tomato and Pace Picante sauce and organic taco seasoning (which comes in a huge container like many spices do) from Costco. However, any salsa or seasoning mix will do.

Chicken preparation:
  • 2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (semi-frozen is easiest to handle)
  • 1 heaping tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1 level tbsp. taco seasoning
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 medium onion
  • 1-2 tbsp. margarine or butter (for frying)
Quesadilla assembling:
  • 2 flour tortillas
  • cheese as desired (depends on tortilla size and tastes)
  • 1/2 medium tomato (very thinly-sliced and diced)
  • 2-4 tsp. salsa (to taste)
  • olive oil (scant amount)
For chicken:
Slice the chicken in long thin strips length-wise. It helps if it is semi-frozen because it's easier to handle and slice thinly. Put the flour, salt and taco seasoning into a bowl with a lid or a Ziploc bag and mix them well. Add the chicken slices and shake to coat. Refrigerate for 2 hours or more.

Thinly slice about half an onion. Heat a frying pan over high heat and add the butter. When the butter has melted, add the chicken and onions and stir fry until the chicken is barely done and slightly browned. If the chicken seems to be very close to finishing but some of it is slightly translucent, turn off the heat and put a lid on it to allow the remaining heat to finish cooking the chicken. The chicken will be super tender if you don't overcook it.
Set the chicken aside and allow it to cool a little while you set up for assembling the quesadilla.

For quesadilla assembling:
Heat a second large frying pan over medium-high heat and add just enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Allow the oil to warm up and place a tortilla on it. Allow one side to brown slightly. Remove the tortilla to a plate (cooked side up) and apply a little more olive oil and place the second tortilla in the pan. Sprinkle cheese on the tortilla being careful not to get too close to the edges. I recommend leaving about a 1/2 inch around the tortilla "bare" of toppings. Place a lid over the pan.

While the cheese is melting, take about 1/3 of the slightly cooled chicken and onions and chop the chicken into bite-sized pieces (save the other 2/3 for leftovers - don't chop it until you are ready to use it as it'll dry out a bit). Sprinkle the chicken on the cheese after it has melted. Top the chicken with diced tomato and dab with salsa. Allow this to fry until the bottom of the tortilla is crispy and brown in spots.
Take the first tortilla and place it on top of the toppings (cooked side up). Gently press down until the cheese "glues" the top and bottom together. When you press, the toppings will squeeze out toward the outer edges and fill the space you left empty. Once you are sure the top and bottom are secure, carefully flip it over and reheat and brown the second tortilla. It's finished when the second tortilla is a bit crispy.

Remove from the pan and cut into 4 wedges. Two wedges are ample as a meal for one person as these are a bit heartier than some quesadillas. Serve with a leafy green salad and guacamole.

One point which is important is to not go overboard with the toppings. If you put too much on it, it'll be unwieldy and hard to eat. If you put too little, you won't get enough taste from the various ingredients. You can add other things to the toppings if you like. Sliced jalepenos or black olives would be nice, but my husband has conservative tastes so I have to keep it simple.

The chicken turns out incredibly good and the leftovers can be reheated in the microwave for a variety of purposes (more quesadillas is my choice, but you can eat it in a salad or just as is). If you make quesadillas again, heat the chicken just to a point where it is just a little warm. If you add cold chicken to the melted cheese, it will not heat up enough.

This is by far one of the best ways to utilize one of the cheapest cuts of chicken in Japan (breasts). Even if you don't like breast meat because it tends to be drier and less flavorful, you'll like it prepared in this way.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Kind of Down

For the last two and a half months, I've done nothing but complain to my CH, my sister, and my pal the wombat stuffer about how hard I've been working. I kept saying how great a relief it was going to be to finally have some free time. Well, now, I've got that free time and I'm feeling a bit depressed.

It's been so long since I've had the time to do things I want to do that I've forgotten what those things might be. I'm forced to consider what I want to do and find myself coming up rather empty and feeling as if I'm lacking in direction. In fact, I've been having one of those pesky first world citizen problems where I find myself questioning where my life is going and what I'm doing with it. As near as I can recall, the last time I had a sizable chunk of free time, I read Wil Wheaton's "Just a Geek" in two days (a good read written by someone who realizes how he is now self-aware and can admit he wasn't when he was quite famous and successful). I'm pretty sure that my goal isn't to read more, however.

After a bit of hard thinking, I remembered that my goal when I quit my full-time job was to "get healthy" both mentally and physically. I'd say the mental part is coming along pretty well. Most of the trauma of working with an erratic company president whose whim-based management style infused life with tension and a distinct feeling of insecurity has worn off by now. The physical part is coming along much more slowly, though I can now do 30 minutes on a treadmill if I can lean on the handles and my disaster area of a back doesn't have to make too great of an effort to keep me vertical.

At any rate, I'll admit something and you can judge me as you will. I don't have any career goals. I used to have some, mind you, but I don't anymore. I once wanted to be a counselor or therapist, possibly even a psychologist. I planned to work for awhile and then go to graduate school. I even applied to and was accepted into two schools (one was Ohio State University and I can't remember the other). After I worked with really crazy people for a few years and saw that the answer is almost always pharmacological rather than through any sort of talk or guidance, that notion withered away. I didn't want to go to medical school nor did I want to simply be the person whose task it was to evaluate whether or not someone should be taking psychotropic medication or not.

The truth is that most people will opt for a handful of pills rather than do the hard work of changing their behavior and that's assuming that they even possess the capacity to change. Many people who are in the mental health care system are pretty far gone. Those who aren't in the system rarely seek help because it's expensive and their insurance won't pay if they're not so far gone that they are endangering themselves or others, or they simply think psychology is a crock and can't do anything for them that they can't choose to do for themselves. My experiences in the real world of dealing with mental health left me disillusioned and a little bit afraid. Being a woman and working with disturbed people is a dangerous business.

After coming to Japan, I found that I was really interested in desktop publishing and learned all about the minutiae of working in print media. That would have continued to have been a goal, but, as I'm sure many have noticed, print media is a wilting industry. Even before print media sales started dropping like a stone, the demand for people who knew their way around Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop was dropping off as everyone with a nephew who could use Microsoft Publisher felt a monkey could do layout so they didn't want to pay much for higher quality work.

Also, while I enjoyed such work, there were always serious creative limits involved. Every time I did a project, people who had nothing to do with the actual work of doing a layout had to have their fingers in the pie of how the creative aspects were carried out. From font choices to graphic styles, someone who did nothing more than lean back in a chair and make frivolous choices based on aesthetic whims would override a cohesive design plan such that the end result was a compromised mess of too many (and clashing) fonts and absurd mixtures of illustration styles. In the end, books always ended up a crazy quilt of poorly mixed elements because various people who were higher on the totem pole then me insisted certain things be their way. Any talk of balance, design grids and use of aesthetic white space flew out the window in favor of cramming as much as possible onto the fewest pages and catering to the pet font and picture choices of the higher ups. Some of the books I was involved in making turned out so poorly that I'd be embarrassed to offer them as samples of my work.

Once again, the reality of the work quashed the dream. Any fulfillment I might get from these types of work was seriously undermined by the environment in which the work was done. After quitting my office job, I realized that most of the positive points connected to any career goal is going to be redirected by reality. The only true way to find fulfillment is to do it outside of the framework of pay. Once it becomes a job, someone else has a say in what you do. This applies even if you are your own boss since the customer's whims and sales figures will then dictate what you should and shouldn't do. Once money is involved, you're someone else's bitch.

That is not to say that I think this is a terrible situation or that I'm bummed out that my dreams have gone unfulfilled. In both cases, I think that the goals were met and then I moved on. Mainly, I think I've just come to realize that the goal is less important than what I walk away with from the experience. Knowing this, however, has made it hard to be overly ambitious or fix a hard target on a future path. For now, I'm pretty satisfied doing what I do teaching and writing. It's not lucrative and it may not have a lot of glamor attached to it, but I do learn and grow and use my skill and wits. It's challenging and rewarding.

I think the reason I'm a bit down now though is that the process and pace of just being a better person and expanding my knowledge and experience through interacting with others and doing modest creative work feels "small." It's also rather hard to measure progress when the goal is "be better than you were in every way." The empty time that I have now makes me ache a bit for a bigger boat to hook my anchor onto than simply "being better." However, part of what I want to be mentally is the sort of person who is just OK with being the way that I am now rather than the type of person who has to have some grandiose life plan or big goal that I can announce to the world.